Saturday, January 30, 2010

Worthless Ideas for Higher Education

The future of education at universities is evidently linked to distance education. If you are unaware of this new development, distance education is where a student does not actually come to a classroom and engage in discussions, listen to lectures, and fall asleep in the back row while texting on his cell phone. Instead, the student has “content” delivered to his home computer. In this way, a student can be offered a rich choice of educational options: falling asleep at home, playing X-Box in another room, or forgetting to turn on the computer altogether.

The administration loves distance education. Not only can it avoid those pesky students actually coming to campus, but can expend its entire instructional construction budget on vital new education projects such as a new scoreboard for the football stadium.

Even more important, as university budgets decrease, distance education opens new opportunities to collect tuition from students who may not live within a thousand miles of the university. Distance education is so much cheaper for a university, that naturally there must be  extra charges. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some universities require a virtual distant parking permit.

It is only a matter of time before we read of a half million dollar contract for someone to coach a Big Ten fantasy football team.
Distance education does work, it is popular, and inevitably this will create its own problems. What will happen when all universities begin competing for the same students? Since the students do not actually come to a campus, there is no particular reason why a university could not allow an ever increasing number of students to enroll. A virtual campus could enroll an infinite number of virtual students. How will a small cash-strapped state university compete with a large cash strapped Ivy League college?

There is only one way: $$Price$$. To paraphrase Earl Scheib; “I’ll educate that student for $39.95.”

Imagine the quality education of the future. A neo-Neanderthal from Moose Crack, Wyoming can get a budget degree in Inter-Dimensional Multi-Media Mass Communication Management Disorders from OxBridge University, Inc., without having to violate his house arrest by removing his electronic ankle bracelet. For an extra $125, he can make the dean’s list.

It’s going to start getting ugly out there as universities begin to really compete for students. Eventually, I imagine universities will begin offshoring faculty jobs. I have a mental picture where the entire curriculum is taught by a single former call center employee in Pakistan. He could earn a little extra money by hiring himself out to students to take the course from himself.

The constant struggling with students to separate them from their money is getting out of hand. We need a more dignified method to separate the student from his tuition. I have a suggestion.

At the beginning of the school year, each student must purchase a new backpack, (naturally in the school colors.) Packed inside each bag could be several thousand dollars in cash. Whenever the built-in GPS unit registered that the student was on school property, a bell sounds every ten minutes and a fresh $5 bill would pop out of the top of the bag. The nearest university employee could just reach over and remove the bill.

Of course, in certain large and popular classes, the sound generated would be enormous, but many of these courses are just noise to begin with.

Or here is a simpler idea. Just auction off the degree to the highest bidder.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

English Weather Explains England's Food

It has been raining, something not all that common here in New Mexico. Two of my classes are at opposite ends of the campus, so I decided to wear a raincoat. Wearing a raincoat in southern New Mexico is really rare. When I put it on, something rustled in the pocket and I found $7.00 and a receipt from a bookstore. The receipt was dated 5 years ago.

Raincoat, rain, I guess this is what got me thinking of England lately. Since I wrote something very nice about England a few weeks ago, I’m hoping I can get away with a little criticism this week. Besides, most of my hate mail lately has been coming from South Carolina or India; I’m ready for a change.

If New Mexico has the best weather, England is way at the other end of the spectrum, somewhere near Minnesota in winter, except you can freeze in England in July. At best they have 2 months of late spring followed by 10 months of dank, wet, gloomy hell. I remember listening to the BBC while cruising on a canal boat through Oxford one day in July. The announcer said, “We have music for your English summer. All thirty minutes of it.”

It mystifies me how a people that at one time or another conquered half the planet, including some very nice warm places, never moved. Look at Australia! If you have to live on an island, why not pick the warm one with great beaches? No! Only the English would ship their convicts to the warm island while staying in a place as cold as boarding house soup.

Personally, my idea of paradise involves a hot beach. And it doesn’t matter how you spell that word. Here in New Mexico, we have great beaches. The beaches just don’t have any water.

Having at one point been masters of North America, the British were only able to hang onto Canada. I guess it had exactly what England loves, lots of cold, wet land. All this is important, for only after you understand that the English are a beautiful people who prefer misery to comfort can you begin to understand English cooking.

I’m not sure, but I think the national dish of England is pork tartar. This is a country that specializes in gray, greasy, and boiled food. I think I remember the boiled part the most, vegetables boiled to a uniform gray. Nowhere else in the world do people brag about mushy peas. And if you see a sign saying a restaurant has a choice of three vegetables, this means you can choose between carrots, peas, and succotash.

There is an old joke in Europe about Heaven and Hell. Heaven is a German auto mechanic, a French cook, and an English policeman. Hell is a German policeman, a French auto mechanic, and an English cook. There is more than a germ of truth in this joke.

To be fair, maybe it is just because the food is different.  Sometimes different is good.  Pork and beans and baked tomatos for breakfast is different, but good?  They actually sell something called "Breakfast In A Can."  Sausage, bean, and tomatoes all in one can.  This is different, but argualbly not good.

Coming from the Southwest, I prefer my food to be on the spicy side; if food doesn’t bite back, it’s not hot enough. Despite what my wife claims, this does not mean I prefer my food to actually be on fire as I eat it, but clearly, if your eyes are not tearing uncontrollably you probably prefer food that comes out of a small jar with “Gerbers” printed on the label. So you can imagine my difficulties in England. I remember a restaurant in London where I sent a waiter on a quest to find me the hottest spice in the kitchen. After a long wait, he brought me a jar of yellow mustard. I ate it with a spoon.

I don’t know why I expected anything different; every restaurant has two strange condiment bottles on the table; white sauce and brown sauce. As far as I could tell, they were two different colors of library paste.

The good news is that there are a number of good restaurants in England; you just have to know the secret to finding them; only eat at restaurants that feature food from countries that England conquered. The Thai and Indian restaurants are spectacular.  And I really loved the jars of pickled cockels, each came with a little wooden spoon.  And I tried a jellied eel; and it tastes pretty much like what you think it does, only colder, greasier, and eelier.

I think I’ve figured it out; I now understand almost everything about the English. Except cricket.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Travel Tips Worth Their Weight In... Pesos

These days, everyone is making fun of airport security. It is easy to take cheap shots at the mentally handicapped. I know, because just last week, I made fun of them. See for yourself, just scroll down about a page and a half.

Cheap shots are easy, but I would like to do something constructive. No, not make more suggestions on how to improve airport security, that’s useless. I know, as a professional educator, I can tell you that while you can attempt to teach algebra to a pig, all that does is piss off the pig. Well, actually, I’ve never tried it with a pig, but I did try to teach history to a basketball player. Pretty much the same thing.

No, I have several useful and helpful ideas on how to improve your travel. In short, I have travel tips.

Let’s start with air travel. I don’t know about you, but one of the reasons I hate flying commercial, besides the airlines not letting me be the pilot, is that the planes are invariably filled with people. And way too often, they want to sit next to me. I really don’t understand this; after all there is plenty of space left out on the wings.

The worst flights, as in SouthWorst Airlines, are the airlines that will not allow you to reserve a seat. Somehow, they believe it is far more dignified to allow you to crowd, push, and grab the best seats you can, not unlike livestock filling a cattle car. The problem with this is that after you find a nice seat, you sit there watching the plane fill and inevitably a 400 lb born again Neanderthal on his way to a bad breath convention decides take not only the seat next to you, but half of your seat as well.

I have the solution. Take a pipe with you, and make damn sure that the only thing ever burned in the pipe was tobacco. You don’t actually smoke the pipe on the plane, but as soon as you sit down, take your pipe out of your pocket and stick it in your mouth. Within seconds, a nervous stewardess will remind you that smoking is forbidden. As a matter of fact, she will remind you every 30 seconds until the plane takes off. But, I can absolutely guarantee you that no one will willingly sit anywhere near the insane man with a pipe. Unless, the plane is full, no one will sit within rows of you.

The only flaw in this plan is that you have to be one of the first to board the plane. I have a suggestion for this, too. Pre-board. All you have to do is go to a drug store and buy a nice padded brace for you leg. When you check in at the ticket counter, tell them you have a broken leg and need to pre-board. If you are really brave, ask for a skycap with a wheel chair. And while you are sitting on the plane, pipe in mouth, waiting for everyone else to board… you can take the brace off.

Naturally, you will have to tip the skycap, but my last travel suggestion will handle this. Foreign money. Especially from Argentina, Mexico, or any other country where high inflation is common. Buy the smallest possible bill in large quantities.

Part of the fun of traveling used to be trying to figure out how much the local money was worth. Brightly colored pieces of strange paper with pictures of unknown people. I especially liked the money the Dutch used to have; they were more like works of art than cash. And it was kind of fun to pay a cab driver by holding up a fan of strange bills and say, “Don’t hurt me.”

While the introduction of the Euro has eliminated some of the fun of European travel, there are still several countries who can provide you with colorful, although worthless, printed money. About six years ago, a single dollar would buy you over a million Turkish Lira.

Several years ago, I took the Doc and both boys to Mexico. At the first bank, I exchanged enough money to provide my wife some pocket change. “Here you are, Honey.” I said as I dumped a pile of bills in her lap, “You’re a millionaire.”

And it was true. I paid a little over $300 for a million pesos. At that rate, you can stuff a handful of 10 peso notes into a bellboy’s or a skycap’s hand. Worth roughly about a quarter.  The recipient will have absolutely no idea how much, or how little, you have tipped them.

You can act like a high roller and throw the cash around. Unless you are stupid enough to try this in Mexico.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Practical Proposal for Airport Security

Two months ago I wrote about problems with air travel and my views about what we call, in what can only be a cruel jest, airport security. ( As we all know, since that time the underwear bomber has upped the stakes. And like every American, I have an opinion about how to improve airport (in)security. And these suggestions, like everyone else’s, will not be listened to and the airport security will continue to be a train wreck into mediocrity.

Still, I would like to offer a humble proposal for airport security. My proposal is a compromise between what I really want, and a security program too limp-wristed to bring order to a kindergarten playground.

What I actually want is…nothing. Just stop reacting to the actions of terrorists. What did the Brits do during the Battle of Britain? They continued to live their lives as normal as they could. I remember several years ago visiting an exclusive tailor’s shop in London. The front of the shop still clearly showed shrapnel damage from German bombs. The shop had no intention of repairing it, and was proud of having conducted business as close to normal as possible throughout the war.

I would like the opportunity to be as brave, but unfortunately my government has decided that I must cower as they protect me from the fingernail clippers and shampoo bottles of my fellow passengers.

I understand the government wants to appear it is proactive, doing something, anything. In today’s nanny state, a government must do something about every problem, but I do not understand why the government is against profiling. I do it all the time. As I have written, my hobby is rabbit hunting. What would happen if the next time I went out in the desert to thin the hare herd if I didn’t profile?

“Yes, your honor. I shot two dogs, a pickup, and a steer, but at least I wasn’t profiling.”

My actual proposal is small, I want to empower the most effective security force in aviation today; the passengers. The only hijacked plane that failed to reach its intended target on 9/11 was brought down by the passengers. Both the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber were stopped by passengers. This despite the fact that all our security measures have done to date is disarm the passengers.

This is why I want to rearm the passengers. No, not with guns, I have no illusions that TSA will suddenly allow the stewardess to walk down the aisle saying, “Coffee, tea, thirty-eight?”

No, my proposal is a return to basics: Rocks. As the passengers board the plane, hand each of them a rock. One about the size of a baseball. Imagine the shoe bomber. Now imagine the shoe bomber being hit with 110 rocks. Crisis over. Ask yourself, if you are on a plane that someone is attempting to hijack, which would you prefer? A Sky Marshall somewhere on the plane who will probably try to reason with the hijacker while not injuring his self esteem? Or a plane load of people winding up to release a blizzard of 2 pound fast balls? There will be no need to subdue the would-be hijacker, he will be the lump under the pile of rocks.

No training is necessary, we all know how to use rocks, and as a society, we use them responsibly most of the time. I mean, you don’t have to build a fence around your rock garden to prevent a mass stoning. Even in Massachusetts you can carry a rock without a permit. Rocks are cheap, natural, renewable, and I guess they fit the definition of green.

America is at war with a fundamentalist Stone Age enemy with the brains of gravel. To fight them, America should return to the original missile defense system.  Clearly, rocks are the perfect weapon.  Let our motto be: Keep Calm and Carry On A Rock.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Happy Valley

Many years ago, there was a beautiful and fertile valley. A hunter, intrigued by the abundant game, made his home in the valley and began to hunt rabbits. There was always meat on the table, life was easy and the hunter was happy.

Before long, a farmer moved to the valley and began to grow onions. He worked very hard and soon his efforts paid off with a bumper crop. Within a very short time he began to regularly trade onions with his neighbor for rabbit meat. Both men were very happy since rabbit stew tastes ever so much better with onions.

By the end of the first year, a shoemaker moved to the valley. Trading with the hunter for rabbit skins and meat, and with the farmer for onions he was soon making shoes for the families of both happy men.

The valley grew even happier with the arrival of a master brewer. Rabbit stew tastes great, but if you can wash it down with a cold beer it becomes a feast fit for a king. Shoes, meat, onions, and beer; the valley now had a thriving economy and a rosy future.

The next pilgrim was a preacher. The wives of the hunter, the farmer, the shoemaker, and the brewer insisted that their families must join the new church, if for no other reason than for the benefit of the children. The preacher explained that only through prayer and the devout religious observations would the harvest of onions and the availability of rabbits be assured. For his guidance, he accepted the gifts of shoes, meat, and onions. You can also be sure he accepted the beer, since he was the only preacher. Any preacher will drink beer as long as there isn’t another preacher to watch him do it.

By now, the little community was growing larger. Luckily a politician moved to the valley and explained the need for government and was quickly elected mayor. The new mayor quickly established an orderly society, with rules, laws, and taxes. Understanding the taxes was difficult, but the arrival of both a lawyer and an accountant helped solve the problem.

Before long, for the safety of the children, the community passed a law that every home had to have a fence built around it. This didn’t make the hunter very happy, as the fence was to be made from trees that primarily grew where the rabbits lived, but the hunter agreed to the project for the sake of the children. The work was very hard, but luckily the accountant counted the boards while the lawyer pointed out where the fences should be built. The hunter, the farmer, the shoemaker, and the brewer took time off from their jobs and with the spiritual guidance of the preacher, soon had the fences built.

The children were safe but uneducated, so the mayor wrote a letter and enticed a school teacher to move to the valley. It turned out the little community was ignorant, she explained that she was an educator and would instill a paradigm of advanced educational pedagogy based on excellence and self esteem. The ignorant people of the community were thrilled and hoped if this worked, maybe someday the educator could also teach the children. They understood this wouldn’t be anytime soon as the mayor was promising a football team just as soon as a coach could be found.

Schools are expensive, and there was a shortage of rabbit meat and onions, even though the mayor had passed a law against falling production. The mayor, the lawyer, and the accountant had worked out a five year economic plan that guaranteed success; the hunter was required by law to only shoot very large rabbits, the farmer was to double his yield per acre, and the brewer was required to put pints of beer in half pint bottles.

It was at this point that a man moved to the town. While he had a very large family, he didn’t have a profession. It seems that he did nothing at all. While it was the opinion of at least the farmer and the brewer that this man should starve to death, the preacher and the lawyer were good people and managed to explain that this man’s family had a right to eat, was entitled to eat, and the community owed it to them to feed them and provide shoes.

Since there was still a shortage, the mayor introduced a new sin tax on beer. Shortly after this new tax, the community discovered that the brewer had left town in the middle of the night with the preacher’s wife, neither was ever seen again. For some reason, right about the same time, the preacher convinced the mayor that alcohol was evil and new laws were passed making the drinking of beer against the law.

The farmer simply quit. He packed up his bags and moved out. He said several unkind things as he left, but there was no convincing him to stay. The mayor didn’t even try, saying he couldn’t be responsible for every undercapitalized business in town. Still the town must do something to preserve their way of life, so they passed a law forbidding the hunter from moving. Most of the pressure for this new law came from the shoemaker who was worried about the availability of rabbit skins.

The community’s fears proved to be well founded, for within a month they caught the hunter trying to sneak out of town. There was a trial, and eventually the lawyer convinced the community that a lesson had to be set for the education of everyone, especially the children. The hunter was hanged.

Years later when someone visited the valley, there were no people living there. The farmer’s fields were a dusty ruin and all the houses had blown down. Even the rabbits were gone, since without the hunter, they had quickly overpopulated, stripped the valley of plant life, and were already on the verge of starvation when an epidemic of Tularemia made them extinct.

The only thing left to show that people had ever lived in the valley was a faded sign where the mayor’s house had once been. As it swings in the wind, you can still dimly read the faded words; Welcome To New Mexico.